The European Commission has proposed legislating to ensure that all EU nations adopt accessibility rules designed to ease disabled people's access to the web.
Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding has for the first time talked of a 'European Disability Act' that could compel EU nations to adopt web accessibility rules together so that all of Europe's websites become accessible at the same rate.
"We cannot achieve the Single Market by leaving aside certain parts of our population," said Reding in a speech yesterday. "I am talking about e-accessibility: 15% of our population is disabled and our rules on accessibility are still fragmented."
"We should in my view encourage the European-wide adoption of the global web accessibility standard, the new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)," she said. "We should do it together and in step so that the online services industry can reap economies of scale and the users get a decent and reliable framework. I believe the way we should do this is to develop together with stakeholders a European Disability Act."
UK anti-discrimination legislation which guarantees the rights of disabled people is derived from the EU's Equal Treatment Directive. However, the main UK law on disability, the Disability Discrimination Act, is unusual in Europe because it created a duty of web accessibility that applies to private and public sector web operators.
WCAG, now in version 2.0, is a set of technical standards written by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). They are designed to ensure that websites are constructed in a way that makes them accessible to disabled people by being structured in certain ways and being compatible with assistive technologies.
Reding said that the EU is facing fragmentation on the issue that may put it at a disadvantage.
"Each Member State is going its own way. We have to consider that this is costly for industry because they have to respond to a wide range of fragmented national standards. It also leaves disabled people without a consistent level of service that they can expect," she said.
Reding suggested the European Disability Act while promoting greater harmonisation within the EU of practices, laws and technologies connected to the market for digital media services.
"We need a harmonised single European market with clearer rules enabling users to be free to buy and enjoy anywhere, anytime and on any platform the content they paid for," she said. "We want to focus the debate on practical solutions for encouraging new business models, promoting industry initiatives and innovative solutions, as well as on the possible need to harmonise, update or review legislation."
Reding also committed herself and the Commission to ensuring that telecoms companies did not start trying to extract payment from content providers as well as consumers. Network neutrality, which is a guarantee that all internet traffic will be treated the same and delivered to telecoms consumers equally, has become an issue in the US.
Reding said that new telecoms rules expected to be agreed by the European Parliament this autumn will give the Commission more power to defend network neutrality. "When the telecoms package enters into force, it will give the European Commission and national regulators new instruments to ensure that the net will be open and neutral in Europe," she said.
"The new telecoms package is in many instances a quite robust answer to such new threats to net neutrality. However, I also know that technology and regulation will evolve further in the years to come. And I plan to be Europe's first line of defence whenever it comes to real threats to net neutrality," said Reding.
Reding said that the Commission would publish a European Digital Agenda in March 2010 that would contain more details of its proposed actions.
Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, gave Reding's comments a cautious welcome.
"It's great to see web accessibility on the Commission's agenda, but it's too early to know what the plans are. Commissioner Reding talks about 'encouraging' the adoption of WCAG 2.0 but she also talks about a 'European Disability Act' which implies something mandatory."
"The EU doesn't pass 'Acts' – it passes Resolutions, Regulations and Directives. We're not told anything else about the plans, so for now, it's all rather ambiguous," he said.
"It was only a small mention in a big speech, but getting any attention for web accessibility at a pan-European level has to be good news," said Robertson.